Why practice mindfulness?

Why practice mindfulness?

Our lives play out moment by moment.  Of course, we have plans, goals and desires – we often look to the possible or planned future for inspiration and motivation – and that’s really good.  Similarly, we look to the past to learn or reminisce, which again can be helpful.  (and here comes the ‘but’) But, it isn’t where we actually live.

How many people did you have in your shower this morning?  Oh, just yourself… but often we’re planning our day in the shower – what we’d like to say in this meeting, where we need to be at 10 o’clock and who we need to speak with beforehand.  Now, that might be important preparation time, but how about just being in the shower?  Feeling the water as it revitalises us, warms us, hearing the sounds… not off in some future meeting, but simply paying attention to this moment.  You might actually enjoy it.

One benefit of being adept at mindfulness is awareness of the many, perhaps mundane, things that we do that are actually pleasant and enjoyable but are often overlooked or ignored.  That time in the shower, eating good food, your morning cup of coffee or tea, walking, hugging, and so on.  These moments of pleasantness can punch above their weight having a much bigger positive effect on you, your day and the people around you than you may realise.

Ahh, I hear you say, but what about unpleasant moments?  Those moments where things have gone wrong, we’ve been rebuked or we have rebuked, we spilt that hot cup of coffee down our front, or something much worse.  Surely, then, being mindful is the last thing we want to do?

In fact, it’s moments like these that show the real power of mindfulness.  ‘Being in the moment’ is simply the starting point.  One thing we have all experienced is the desire to push away or escape in some way from something unpleasant, for example by distracting ourselves.  Or we might attempt to distance from it by finding blame or justify to ourselves and others why we feel this way in an attempt to get rid of the unpleasantness.

Pushing emotionally unpleasant things away is perfectly natural.  But, this pushing away can itself extend or increase the unpleasantness, or just delay the discomfort giving us time to be anxious about it.  One of the things you would learn on a well-designed mindfulness course, is how to deal with unpleasantness differently, perhaps more wisely.

So, mindfulness can help us notice and benefit from the pleasant moments and help us deal more skilfully with the tough moments.  But it doesn’t stop there.  If you look at empirical studies then the benefits can be wide-ranging.  Before I list some though, I’d like to summarise what I think is the overarching benefit of mindfulness.  It is to live more consciously.  Or, simply, to really live.

I started this note by suggesting that our lives play out moment by moment.  If you are actually in those moments (rather than off in the future or dealing with the past), you get to choose and experience life more fully, more consciously, more mindfully.

So, what does the scientific literature suggest are the benefits of mindfulness?  Firstly, what do we mean by scientific studies?  Most social science when looking for the effect of some intervention (e.g. mindfulness) works by:

  1. Suggesting a hypothesis – I think intervention ‘a’ will increase x or decrease y (e.g. I think labelling thoughts during mindfulness practice will decrease negative emotion)
  2. Measuring the level of x or y in a group of participants
  3. Running an experiment to apply the intervention
  4. Measuring the level of x or y again, to see if there is any difference from the measurements at the start
  5. If there are differences, what is the probability that those changes came from the intervention (this is all about statistics)
  6. Making a claim about whether the original hypothesis was supported or not.

It doesn’t cover the nuances of scientific study, but if you’ve not been involved in this kind of work it gives the essence of the process.  And considering that there have been literally thousands of these kinds of studies looking at a wide range of mindfulness practice and benefits, you can see why there might be so many benefits attributed to mindfulness.  I believe that because mindfulness combines a way of ‘being,’ while providing participants with an understanding of how our mind works along with ways to deal with some of its oddities, its impact is broad.

So, here are a few of the areas that experiments have suggested mindfulness practise benefits:

  • Reduced stress
  • Improved relationships
  • Better decision making
  • Increased mental and job performance
  • Physical and mental well-being
  • Increased resilience
  • Improved working memory
  • Even, improved job satisfaction

There are actually many more, and in an article on Reach Remarkable, I include links to scientific studies and another way of looking at the benefits of mindfulness if you’d like to know more.

So, there are lots of potential benefits.  But the real question is, how will it specifically benefit ‘me’ – and I can’t answer that.  We can list the benefits found by those who have practised mindfulness, but in order for you to find out how it will benefit you, naturally, you need to learn and try it, over a period of time.  How long?  The most common recommendation is eight weeks, the length of the most studied mindfulness courses.

Raise questions?  I’m happy to try and answer any questions you have, so do contact me.

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